Although her life (and stature) was short, Phillis Wheatley’s impact was mighty. We don’t know much about her early life except that she showed up in Boston Harbor on a slave ship in 1761. Her age estimations put her around the age of seven.
Considering that she was now a slave, in a new land, and being purchased like a piece of merchandise, you could say Phillis had luck on her side. The wealthy Susanna Wheatley claimed her, named her (after the ship she came in on, called Phillis), took her home, and ultimately, treated her like a member of the family.
It’s rumored that Phillis was literate in her own African language of origin (where or what that was, we may never know). Upon discovering her intellect early on, the Wheatleys encouraged her education in reading, writing, and speaking English. After becoming fluent, they had her study Latin, Greek, mythology, the Bible, literature, and geology, to name a few. When she picked up writing as her specialty – specifically poetry – she was encouraged by the Wheatleys.
By age 12-14 she was writing poetry that would be published in local papers. Phillis established herself as a notable writer and picked up international audiences by the age of 17. Susanna played a large role in her publishing success after getting Phillis’ book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, published in London in 1773.
Phillis became the first African American and the second woman (only after Anna Bradstreet) to have a book published. Not only was she just 17, but a slave. Even Benjamin Franklin and George Washington are known to have read her works. If all of this doesn’t cue the applause, we don’t know what does.
If only we could leave Phillis’ story on a high note. Unfortunately, a series of deaths in the Wheatley family left Phillis alone with nowhere to turn. As is often the case in history, marriage was her only viable option. She desperately tried to get her 2nd volume of poetry published, but she was unsuccessful. Phillis continued to write poetry while working as a scrubwoman in a boarding house. After two deceased children, an absent husband, and a complicated third pregnancy, Phillis died alone, at the young age of 31 in 1784.
While her end was heart-breaking, her literary talents should forever be commemorated. Phillis’ legacy is (and should forever be) known for proving to the world that African Americans were equally intellectual, smart, and could benefit from an education that they often never received. While she should be celebrated every day, August 18 is known as Phillis Wheatley Day at the Old South Meeting House in Boston, Massachusetts.
Girl Museum Inc.